I am sorry to say that I cannot recall who introduced me to the music of Rush when I was a freshman in college in the early 90s. Memory is a tricky thing, and significant moments can slip by in the current of their consequences. But at some point, I acquired Chronicles, a collection of the band’s work through the Presto album.
I grew up in a household that played the same records of Beethoven and Mozart every Saturday after church and whose musical adventurism extended to watching Hee Haw after sunset the same evening. I got introduced to some of Pink Floyd’s songs in high school — we don’t need no education was my chant through much of those years of indoctrination — but on the whole, my personal knowledge and deviation from my parents’ tastes was limited to seeing Bach as superior to Mozart, along with occasional odds and ends that my friends had on.
And then I heard “Subdivisions,” the first song on the Signals album. I had already picked up on the complexity of their music from the earlier works in the compilation, and the lyrics spoke of a dystopia akin to something out of Orwell, of equality and free will, of rebellion and celebrity — and blessedly, not of a single insipid love story. (More about that in a bit.) The opening of “Subdivisions,” however, had a part with snare, bass, high hat, and ride cymbal that I played over and over. How one person — Neil Peart, according to the liner notes — could keep all four instruments going in that complex a beat amazed me.
And then Geddy Lee started singing Peart’s lyrics. Here were words that I not only understood but identified with. Here was someone who described my life, a misfit so alone. Disaffected teenage boys got no better treatment in the days before mass shootings grabbed headlines than they do today, and fitting in is the capital that allows human beings to fit in. I mean that exactly as written. Some get recognized for having the innate skill for appealing to the crowd in early years and thus get welcomed in, while others are spotted as being off key and out of step and are encouraged to stay away by ourselves. That someone could know this by having stood at the window looking in and still create such beautiful music was a revelation to me.
My professional life has consisted of speaking to groups of people — classes, writers’ groups, and audiences — and Peart modeled how introverts can live in public: Study your subject, master it without ever coming to believe that your learning is done, and go turn in the best work you can deliver in the knowledge that excellence is an asymptote that we can only approach. And when the stars align, the art will rise to magic, and the stranger on the other side of the podium or page will turn out to be a long awaited friend.
Peart was called the Professor, though his schooling ended in his adolescence, and as someone who has been called the same title, I can say that his example is a lesson to everyone that in a well lived life, the only piece of paper that ends one’s education is a death certificate. He lived the truth that anyone who wants to be a good writer must be a good reader.
I have been a poor journalist here, burying the lede. The cells tick away, and some of them turn malignant. Neil Peart died on the 7th of January of brain cancer. To borrow a line from Robert Frost, if design there is in a thing so small as the human brain, then the gods are malign for having attacked that essential organ in someone so brilliant. The best among us are pulled away from the limelight, while oozing assholes like a certain reality television star stay long after their damage to humanity has grown tedious. Peart bet his life on words and music, and if there is a watchmaker who keeps track, said deity had damned well better mark the account paid in full with credit left over for all the lives Peart leaves his mark upon.
I use religious language here because unlike Peart, I was brought up to believe. Peart’s humanism and defiance of a universe so badly arranged, intentionally or otherwise, was poetry to accompany the prose of Asimov, Sagan, and Gould as I navigated my way out of the hateful Christianity of my parents. It was a Rush song, “The Camera Eye,” from Moving Pictures that demonstrated to me that I would never again connect with my father, in fact. I had Rush playing in my room, and he came in to inquire as to how I could listen to such music. I handed him the lyrics to Peart’s song about the distinctive characters of New York City and London and started the music. After a couple of minutes — lots of Rush songs are far longer than the typical pop number — the telephone rang, and my father — the guy who contributed some DNA, in any case — left. He did not go out for cigarettes when the call was done — Adventists are not supposed to smoke, though I would have respected him at least a bit if he had ever rebelled in any way — but he never came back to finish listening. And I had the lesson cemented into my mind that family is made up of the people we choose to have in our lives, not the ones we are biologically saddled with.
Fathers and heroes have to earn their titles. What Peart in specific and Rush as a group did for me was to preserve my faith that nerds can win, that those who wish to be themselves, to drum a different beat, can mold a new reality of their own choosing. As I found out in recent years, 2112, the band’s fourth album, was a declaration of nonconformity, a political and ethical statement when the record label had called for something commercial. A person does not have to fit in to find a place. A band does not have to live on three-minute love songs, either.
Though Peart could write longer ones when he wanted to, as “Ghost of a Chance” and “Cold Fire” illustrate. And all of his lyrics show a love of the world and for the freedom of each of its members to develop individually. He called himself a bleeding heart libertarian, and while he credited Ayn Rand as an early inspiration, his love reached out to express his care for those who suffer and those who dream.
I have dropped quotations from his lyrics throughout because his words are a part of the soundtrack of my life. Neil Peart for all that you have given, thank you. If there is a musicians’ heaven, John Bonham and Keith Moon surely greeted you at the gate with “you done us proud.”